The story of the Jewish community in Colorado is a story of constant movement.
From early Jewish neighborhoods that set up along the Platte River in Denver in the 19th century, the members of the local faith spread slowly and steadily to bases on the east side of Denver, as well as concentrations farther north.
But that movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s was only the beginning of a longer local journey. The sites of the largest traditional Jewish communities in Colorado—a strip off Alameda Avenue just west of Aurora, the former Jewish neighborhood in the Highlands of Denver near the current site of Sports Authority Field—have ceased being singular refuges.
“We first started noticing 30 years ago that the ZIP codes of our readers were going everyplace, in every direction,” said Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News based in Denver. Goldberg, whose family history in Denver goes back generations, has tracked the modern progress of the faith through his dual roles as spiritual leader and journalist. “The big news is: We’re not so concentrated anymore,” he says.
It’s a trend that’s all the more remarkable, considering the unique demands of the faith. Judaism may be one of the world’s oldest religions, but there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to observing the faith. In a small section of east Denver mere miles from Aurora, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform temples are all within walking distance of each other.
Those synagogues may be close physically, but they represent a big range of different approaches to Judaism. Rabbi Joe Black is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel on Grape Street in Denver. The Emanuel congregation includes about 2,000 families; it’s one of the biggest Reform synagogues in the country.
And since it’s Reform, the temple’s approach to Judaism attempts to bridge the gap between modernity and tradition. Unlike Orthodox Jews, members of the Emanuel temple are allowed to drive, use electricity and other modern conveniences during Shabbat every week. A typical weekend service is just as likely to include live music and dancing as it is the study of the Torah and prayer.
“One of the challenges that we, as a congregation, face is that the centrality of the synagogue is not the same for people who didn’t grow up with that deep commitment to the congregation,” Black said. “There are a lot of unaffiliated Jewish people in this community.”
That means that worshipers come from all corners of the metro area, including neighborhoods in Aurora that don’t claim any Orthodox, Reform or Conservative Jewish temples.
The larger history of the Jewish people plays a strong role at Emanuel, an impressive building designed by Percival Goodman and constructed in the 1950s. In one of the sanctuaries in the vast building that takes up a whole city block, a preserved ark from the Czechoslovakian city of Kolin sits in the back of the space. That ark, along with one of the Torah scrolls that sits inside, was looted from a Czech synagogue by the Nazis during World War II. The pieces arrived in Denver after a decades-long post-war journey through different cities in Europe.
For Black, that moving and tactile piece of Jewish history aligns with Emanuel’s larger mission. The synagogue is a place to teach people how to love being Jewish—and that love comes through a solid sense of history, tradition and observance.
“The expectation that one joins a synagogue is no longer the case,” Black said. “I think the most important thing that we as a religious community offer is community. It’s a place where you experience God not only through prayer, but through community.”
Creating that focused community isn’t always simple. Like the history of the Jewish people on a wider scale, the story of the local community has been one of change.
It means that just because Aurora lacks a big number of synagogues, it doesn’t mean the religion is absent from the city.
“There is movement in Aurora too. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re affiliated with synagogues,” Goldberg said. “The spreading out of the Jewish community and the establishment of synagogues are not necessarily corollaries.”
That means that more and more, Jews in Aurora are following the example of their forebears and starting to move.